For a group of Husch Blackwell attorneys, a federal judge’s 2019 order requiring Missouri to overhaul its parole process for state inmates sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles was especially gratifying.
Missouri attorneys Jordan T. Ault, Denyse L. Jones, Matthew D. Knepper, Theresa M. Mullineaux and Sarah L. Zimmerman were part of a larger team of Husch attorneys and support staff who provided pro bono assistance on the case, teaming up with the MacArthur Justice Center.
Jones and Knepper have, on a pro bono basis, represented JLWOP clients — those sentenced as juveniles to life without parole — since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Miller v. Alabama in 2012. In that case, the court ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
Through time, they built a relationship with the MacArthur Justice Center, a public interest law firm that has litigated numerous civil rights cases, and its executive director, Amy Breihan. Eventually they saw the need for litigation to address problematic parole practices in Missouri.
The Husch attorneys joined with the MacArthur Justice Center in representing four plaintiffs who were representative of a class of about 100 JLWOP inmates in Missouri. They sued the state in 2017 alleging the state’s policies for handling their cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and due-process rights under the 14th Amendment.
In October 2018, U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, finding that Missouri was not providing a meaningful opportunity for release.
As a result of Laughrey’s 2019 order — unsealed in August — JLWOP inmates will get more access to their rehabilitation programs and their own files. They also may come to hearings accompanied by attorneys who can present evidence and rebut victim statements.
The attorneys are quick to note that the case is ongoing — the state is appealing Laughrey’s order — but Knepper said the judge’s ruling “just validated that the efforts we were making were not in vain.”
Knepper also noted that the order has not been stayed for the appeal, which means that the Husch attorneys expect new hearings for some clients to begin in 2020.
The attorneys come from varied practice areas and backgrounds.
Ault is a 2007 graduate of the University of Illinois School of Law. After 10 years in the firm’s St. Louis office, he moved to the Jefferson City office in 2017. His practice includes a focus on mass tort and product liability, and he co-chairs the firm’s nonprofit organizations and religious institutions team.
Jones, a 2001 graduate of the Tulane University School of Law in New Orleans, previously clerked for Judge Duane Benton at the Missouri Supreme Court. She worked at Jones Day in Dallas before joining Husch in 2008. She handles litigation for businesses in the areas of real estate, development and construction.
Having worked with individual JLWOP clients for several years now, she said it’s “very satisfying” to get to a point where they might be able to move forward.
Knepper is a 2009 graduate of Saint Louis University School of Law. He joined the firm after law school. His practice includes health care and commercial litigation.
Mullineaux earned her law degree from the University of Missouri. She joined the firm in 2017. Her practice is focused on commercial litigation.
Zimmerman joined the firm in 2016 after graduating from Washington University School of Law. Her focus is in commercial litigation. She started working on the JLWOP matter as a summer associate.